Great marketing is an art. Great art is also an art. Therefore great marketers = great artists. Right?
There might be a (minor) flaw in our logic, but we do think that marketers can learn a lot by looking to the art historical greats.
That’s because, throughout history, artists have created things that have captivated and engaged people — sometimes even across centuries. As marketers, we want to captivate and engage people, too.
So, with this shared goal in mind, we studied some of the most significant artists from the Renaissance to the twentieth century to learn the traits behind their creative processes and how we can apply their insights to our own practices.
One of the most important traits we found common to both artists and marketers is that they need to plan meticulously.
This might sound counterintuitive — artists don’t exactly have the best reputation for being organized, proactive planners. But, while they’re stereotypically represented as being passionate, impulsive, unpredictable, and at the mercy of their creative whims, the truth is that great artists actually need to be great project managers, too.
Take, for example, Michelangelo’s paintings for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling was an enormous project, so big that it took four years to complete, with Michelangelo uncomfortably contorted on a scaffold high above the floor the whole time he was working on it.
The finished paintings cover over 460 square meters and contain over 300 figures. Because of the fresco technique he used to create it, which involved working with quick-drying wet plaster, he had to work rapidly in small sections.
Not only that, but, to compensate for the curved shape of the ceiling, he had to adjust the perspective so that the scenes would appear “correctly” when viewed from the floor. Every section had to be painstakingly planned and designed, and Michelangelo did countless studies and sketches to prepare for each one.
Which is all to say: he didn’t just get the urge to paint and go for it.
With that in mind, here are three things we can learn about great marketing from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel:
1. Think big, work small
To create something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had to be able to shift between short-term and long-term tactics. He needed to balance the everyday work, like painting the smaller individual sections, with the ability to zoom out and think “strategy” — to literally and metaphorically see the ceiling from the ground up.
It’s a perfect metaphor for the way marketers need to work. To be successful, you need to break your overall strategy down into actionable tasks and find a system that works for you to help you realize them. That system can be anything from Post-It notes, a giant whiteboard, or (our personal favorite) a project management tool.
Whatever you use, make sure that it helps you to “paint for the curved ceiling”: even the tiniest of tasks should help you to achieve your big-picture goals.
2. Collaborate with your client
Even Michelangelo had to grapple with bureaucracy and admin before he could see his project realized.
Working with Pope Julius II as his papal project manager, he had to negotiate the specifics of the brief and develop the idea from conception to final product.
The initial brief was much less complex, so as an artist, Michelangelo had to find a balance that would satisfy both what his client-slash-patron-slash-project manager(-slash-Pope) wanted and what he wanted to deliver creatively.
No matter who your boss is, the success of your project depends on excellent communication skills, adaptability, and a willingness to compromise.
3. It’s all about teamwork
Having a creative vision is essential, but you have to be strategic, adaptable, and able to work well with others in order to realize it. No matter how big or small your marketing team is, you need to be able to rely on the right people to support you through your project’s journey.
For example, Michelangelo’s ideas might have been all his own, but when the time came to execute his paintings, he “looped in” assistants to help him with things like mixing paints, preparing plaster, and even painting small sections of the ceiling to help him accomplish his grand designs.
Michelangelo’s assistants may have been the unpaid interns of their time, but for the modern marketer, his reliance on them serves as a good reminder that no one — no matter how much of an iconic genius they are — can do everything by themself. As another iconic genius, Steve Jobs, once said: “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
Breaking huge projects into manageable chunks, collaborating with your clients, and delegating using the resources available to you are all fundamental traits of great marketers. And if Michelangelo could do all of that without all the apparatus that modern marketers have at their disposal — like project management software, marketing automation platforms, the internet, running water — just think what you can do with the help of the right tools. (No pressure.)